The past few weeks we have been exploring the Book of James and how the words of the New Testament guide and inform us how to live amid the chaos and churn of our present day. We learned that we cannot be doubleminded in our thinking; that is, we cannot lean on our own understanding and human wisdom. James said that we need to turn to God and ask for His wisdom to deal with the trials of life and that in doing so our experiences are changed because we are changed. With God’s wisdom, trying experiences do not defeat or deplete us because through them we are made more and more into the image and likeness of Jesus. James said to be more like Jesus is pure joy. Secondly, we learned that joy comes to us when we take that image, that reflection of Jesus within us, and live out God’s Word by our actions. To do that, we must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. In our calmness and self-control, the very image of Jesus, then our efforts to serve those who are most vulnerable is seen properly as God working through us. Our actions with God then appear as light in the darkness, mercy for those in need, and is strikingly seen as love amid the swirling winds of hate. That sort of “religion,” James said God accepts as sees as pure and faultless.
Today, we want to continue to explore James’ practical teachings for a Christian life with an understanding of favoritism. The subject of favoritism is literally burning across our country today. Favoritism, according to the dictionary, is “the practice of giving unfair preferential treatment to one person or group at the expense of another.” Favoritism when practiced by an individual can be a painful experience for the person disadvantaged. In my work with abused and neglected children, I saw firsthand the destructive power of favoritism expressed by parents toward one child at the expense of the wellbeing of another. The neglected child always struggled for acceptance, to feel unloved, and often sought validation of their worth in harmful ways such as alcohol, drugs, or risky sexual activities. Favoritism is not enhancing, it is destructive. James wrote in Chapter 2, verse 1, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” Christians should have no part of personal favoritism.
Now, in the collective, favoritism is indistinguishable from prejudice where one group is favored over another group. Prejudice or systemic favoritism is part of the national shouting match that is going on right now. I call it a shouting match and not a dialogue because it appears that everyone is speaking as loud as they can, and no one is listening. The media is doing its part to foster division among us because keeping people outraged makes for good news. For example, hardly a day goes by that there are not several incendiary stories about the Black Lives Matter movement or organization. I am not going to comment on Black Lives Matter except to note that the media tends to present stories about that group in such a way as to almost add a word to the group’s name. Instead of “Black Lives Matter,” the media fosters a sense of “Only Black Lives Matter.” This sense exclusivity, of course, leads to others openly saying, “All Lives Matter,” and the shouting begins. If the media felt compelled to add a word to Black Lives Matter, perhaps it would be better to foster the sense that “Black Lives Matter Too.” With the addition of this sense of disparity, it becomes clear our dialogue ought to be about the fact that under God all of us are equal and that there must not be favoritism.
The early Christian Church was not stranger to favoritism and wrestled with disparity within the church. The apostles saw the destructive nature of favoritism and promptly addressed it. In the Book of Acts, Chapter 6, we read, “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. [There was favoritism and one group of Christians complained that their widows mattered too.] 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together.” The church met and acknowledged the disparity and put together a plan that resolved the issue. What was the result of ending the favoritism? We see in verse 7 of Chapter 6, “7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” When we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger and with God’s wisdom we end favoritism, great things can happen.
James was addressing a similar issue of favoritism in the early church outside of the confines of Jerusalem. James wrote, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism.” A more accurate translation of the sense James was conveying might sound like, “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must [STOP SHOWING} favoritism.” James was confronting a real issue not a hypothetical problem. James confronted the matter head on starting in verse 2. “2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in.” I want to pause here just for a moment to make sure we do not read past an important word. James set the stage for this story by making the scene a meeting among Christians who are gathered to share in the good news of the gospel, to enjoy the love feast of the Lord’s Supper, and fellowship with one another. We call this church. It is in this setting and this set of expectations that two men enter. One wearing gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes. In that setting, James continued, “3 If you show special attention [during this time of worship and fellowship] to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” James was pointing out the historic favoritism given to people of wealth over the poor by all organizations including, in this case, the early Christian Church. Moreover, the affront is committed in full view of all who are gathered for the expressed purpose of hearing the gospel message and experiencing fellowship. If Christians will openly show favoritism toward the rich in worship, then what would be their response when in a private setting? A few verses earlier, James cautioned Christians, “26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:26-27). We think of controlling our tongues as not speaking in anger alone. Here, James’ example was the tongue of this host at a time of worship had made the “religion” worthless by showing favoritism toward the wealthy man.
Compare for a moment the scene James painted of favoritism of the rich with the earliest example of church we have from the Book of Acts. “42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 4:42-47). There was no favoritism and God prospered the church.
Over a short period of time, the church experienced favoritism at least toward the rich that James was seeking to correct. Why would the host of this meeting give favor the rich? Because the rich can contribute significant amounts of money. The poor cannot. Because the rich can contribute more we equate their greater giving with greater faith, greater depth of commitment, and greater standing before God than the poor. One day, “41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. 43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:41-44). Jesus saw the purity of the heart in the giving and declared the small offering greater than all the riches giving by the wealthy people because the widow gave to the depth of her existence and she saw her giving as joyful.
James picked up on Jesus’ theme in verse 5. “5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” The point of James’ letter was that we dishonor people when we show favoritism. It is wrong. It is destructive and as we will see, favoritism within or by a Christian or within the Christian community is a sin before God. That is how significant favoritism is to God.
James made the point of favoritism and sin this way beginning in verse 8, “8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. [So far so good.] 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” Favoritism necessarily breaks the law of loving your neighbor because to show favoritism means you love one and you do not love the other.
Now James hits this subject of sin hard. He wanted his readers to understand that they cannot see breaking the law in this one regard, favoritism, and keeping it elsewhere, as acceptable. James said, “10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (James 2:10-11). Here is a practical way to think about what James was saying. Suppose you are cutting the grass at your home. As the lawnmower blades are whirling at highspeed, the blades strike a small stone sending it out the grass shoot and straight at your neighbor’s oversized window. You flinch. Then you heard a loud “crack” sound, a noise you hoped you would not hear. You shutoff your mower and go over and see that the stone hit that beautiful window and put a hole in the bottom corner of the window, about the size of a dime. You ring the doorbell and inform your neighbor what has happened, and you offer to compensate your neighbor for the damage. Your neighbor informs you it is a specially made window and it will cost you $1,000. You tell your neighbor to hold on. You only put a small hole in the window the size of a dime, perhaps 1% of the total area of the window. The cost of 1% of the window would be only $10 but you are willing to be generous and pay double that amount, $20. Your neighbor points out, you did not break 1% of the window. You broke the window. This is the point James was making. James was saying we cannot say we broke only 1% of the law. When we sin, we break the whole law because the law is singular, like a window. The law is not made up of 100 - 1% pieces; it is made up of one single unbroken piece.
James then concluded his thought this way. “12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13). James made two key points about our personal behavior. He said we should speak and act always as though we were going to be judged in that very moment by God against the standard of breaking one part of the law breaks the entire law. James said that with this attitude before God we have the freedom to always do the right thing because our motives would be those of God and not our own alone. James understood this principle in a unique way. He was Jesus’ brother and repeated saw the peace and freedom Jesus had to speak and act in accordance with God’s will even when others, including James, were trying desperately for Jesus act in accordance with their will. We must act in accordance with God’s will; that is a freeing experience.
James’ second point is that freedom to act in God’s presence will result in us extending mercy and not judgment. James was reiterating Jesus’ words, “Blessed are the merciful [Congratulations are in order for the merciful], for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). And twice Jesus reiterated words from the Old Testament passage, “I desire mercy” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7). Mercy is a gift that binds and heals wounds. Mercy is ours to give and receive in greater amounts.
Our role as Christians is to speak and act to create a sense of sanctuary wherever we are individually or as the collected church. We should speak and act without favoritism and always towards the celebration of life. We should speak and act with freedom knowing that it is God who will judge our conduct immediately in the moment and for eternity. When faced with uncertainty, we should speak and act with mercy that restores and heals all wounds. Our role as Christians may not be the easiest path to travel. But then it was not easy for our Savior Jesus. He has been down the road we travel; we need only follow Him. This week let’s remember each person we meet matters too, and we should reflect to them the love of Christ that resides within us. Amen and Amen.